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20 Years Ago: Ronnie Lane Dies

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Small Faces and Faces co-founder Ronnie Lane ended his struggle against multiple sclerosis on June 4, 1997, concluding the sad final chapter to one of the more poignant stories in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Born April 1, 1946 in Essex, England, Lane demonstrated a knack for showmanship at an early age. As he’d later recall, he was nudged toward music by his father, a truck driver who counseled young Ronnie that if he learned how to play guitar, he’d always have a friend — words that proved prophetic during Lane’s teen years, when he linked up with drummer Kenney Jones to form a group they dubbed the Outcasts. After meeting Steve Marriott and bonding over their shared love of American R&B, the duo invited Marriott to join them for a gig that ended with the spectacular onstage immolation of the Outcasts and the next chapter in their career.

“Steve got up with us, sang a song and then he brought the house down with his Jerry Lee Lewis routine on the upright piano they had. He was jumping up and down on top of it and breaking all the keys on the keyboard,” Jones recalled. “We got thrown out of the pub, lost the gig there, the other guys [in the band] had gone off, they weren’t speaking to Ronnie and I because we’d brought Steve along. We were sitting on my drum kit outside on the curb. The three of us just looked at each other and burst out laughing and that’s when we decided to form a band together.”

That band, the Small Faces, reeled off a string of hit singles during the mid-to-late ’60s, but creative differences — and an inability to sort out their dire finances — led to the band splintering after Marriott quit to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton. Undaunted, Lane, Jones, and keyboardist Ian McLagan linked up with ex-Jeff Beck Group members Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood to form the Faces.

Quickly developing a reputation for their barn-burning live shows and (usually) charmingly drunken demeanor, the Faces carved out their own niche on the charts, working their way into the Top 40 with their second LP, 1971’s Long Player. But solid reviews and rising sales weren’t enough to keep the group from crumbling under the weight of a number of problems, including creative disagreements and the stratospheric arc of Stewart’s solo career, and Lane departed the lineup in 1973.

“I like showing off, doing a song and shaking a leg on stage, but I don’t want to play all those silly games that go on anymore,” he explained two years later. “As far as I’m concerned, if half of them had never been stars they would have done something better; it’s totally stardom that’s f—ed them up. Or this illusion of stardom – it’s not even real. All right, let the little girls’ magazines say it’s glamorous and all that, but Christ, we’re grown men, aren’t we? We should know better.”

Lane’s post-Faces years found him founding a new band, which he dubbed Slim Chance, and pursuing a number of quixotic ventures that underscored his singular charm while extending his long financial bad luck streak. His 1974 tour, which traveled under the Passing Show banner, was an infamously ill-considered affair that tried to combine a traditional carnival with a rock concert — and lost loads of money in the bargain. Lane’s increasingly bucolic direction with Small Chance, while richly rewarding musically, wasn’t cut out for Top 40 airplay, and his sales suffered accordingly.

As Lane’s commercial prospects dwindled, a health battle loomed. During the period that produced his classic collaboration with Pete Townshend, 1977’s Rough Mix LP, he started noticing troubling physical problems that — although he initially brushed them off as the aftereffects of too much hard living — would eventually be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis.

“The odd spasm of double vision I didn’t take very seriously at first,” Lane later said. “I just put it down to that heavy Saturday night I just had. But it came on me very suddenly when I was trying to put the bass line on a song that I’d written. My fingers just would not work, and I thought, ‘What the hell has happened to me?’ From there it led to crippledom.”

By the time he sought treatment for his symptoms, it was too late for doctors to do anything — and although he sought a number of cures, including oxygen treatments and venom injections, he was ultimately faced with a slow, cruel death sentence from which there’d be no reprieve.

“They just looked at me with an awful, pitiful, sort of helpless expression,” he recalled of the day his doctors gave him his diagnosis. “It was scary — really scary. When they look at you like that, you know they can’t bleedin’ do anything, and oh, do you feel alone.”

Lane’s increasingly fraught final years were tinged with bitterness and a certain amount of regret, but he wasn’t truly alone. While never quite as famous as some of his more commercially accomplished peers, Lane had a lot of friends in the record industry, and they rallied around him; in 1983, an all-star lineup featuring some of Britain’s biggest rock stars — including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Steve Winwood — led a series of benefit shows for Action into Research for Multiple Sclerosis.

The ARMS Charity Concerts, as they were called, raised roughly $1 million for research, but Lane himself was left essentially destitute after a series of bad business deals and years of financial neglect. Finally unable to afford much beyond basic essentials and palliative healthcare, he passed away in Trinidad, Colo. at the age of 51.

Lane’s death was tragic on a number of levels, from the disease’s agonizing advance to the way it cut short a life and career that once seemed to overflow with boundless promise. But while his sad passing cast a shadow over Lane’s story, his music lives on — and still sounds as fresh and vibrant as it did when he recorded it, the echo of a spirit that sparked friendships and creative partnerships whose legacy live on.

“Short and sweet was our Ron,” said McLagan. “He loved a joke. He used to cry with laughter. He had that real cockney knees-up attitude. He didn’t know the meaning of ‘pretentious.'”

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